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Waltham's homeless document hope and hardship through camera lens

Posted by Megan McKee  November 12, 2010 09:10 AM

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Annie Pitaro stands in front of a wall bearing her photographs.

Apart from the routines of regular life, many of Waltham's homeless spend their days trekking between the library, McDonald's, and other warm places as they wait for the Salvation Army to serve meals and the city's two shelters to open their doors in the evening.

Starting today, the public can get a glimpse into the lives of five people who have been homeless in Waltham through photographs they took in a collaborative project between the Community Day Center of Waltham and Lasell College.

Jeannie Redman, 51, is one of the photographers. The mother of four became homeless when she escaped a domestic abuse situation in April with just the clothes on her back.

“At 51, this wasn't the situation I was supposed to be in,” she said. “I used to think I knew what a homeless person looked like. It really kind of re-set by mind about what I knew and what I thought I knew.”

Redman is a nurse by training but was kept a prisoner in her home for a year and a half by her abuser. When she came to Waltham, she didn't know where she was going, what she was doing, or how to survive.

Her days were spent walking everywhere to pass the time as she waited for the women's shelter to open its doors at 7 p.m. every night. Women must be out at 7 a.m. every morning.

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One series of Redman's photographs shows her feet walking on various terrain. In one photo, her foot is on brick. In another, it's pavement.

She said when she first saw the photos developed, the pain of her initial homelessness came flooding back. She used to feel so ashamed of her situation that she couldn't look up from the ground.

“It really brought me back to how I felt when I first got here,” she said. “There were times I felt I was slipping through the cracks.”

But the photography project has been integral in helping her process her feelings.

“I can look up now. I'm not ashamed to be homeless now,” said Redman. “Being in the situation you're in doesn't define who you are.”

Another photographer, Paula Andreason, sees things differently. Homelessness has given her no breaks. She said she has the end stages of lung disease and lost custody of her four kids when she admitted to a judge that she's homeless.

“It's chaotic. You're worried about whether you're going to sleep inside or outside,” said Andreason, who is 40. She said she has a “tent on standby” in case she gets kicked out of her boyfriend's rooming house—she's not supposed to sleep there—and won't feel secure or happy until she has a warm and stable home to call her own.

“We're normal people and bad things happen to good people,” she said. “I just hope people know there are a lot of homeless people and homeless children.”

The Community Day Center of Waltham is the only daytime refuge in MetroWest dedicated to homeless people, said director Marilyn Lee-Tom. All of the photographers use the day center, and worked with Lasell College students to put together the exhibit, she said. Students wrote the show's promotional materials, among other things.

“The thing that really excited me was how they grew through the process,” said Lee-Tom. “It's a very painful process and a very painful place to be...I think for every hopeful picture there is an underlying hardship.”

Although Annie Pitary is now living in a group home, the 57-year-old has had been homeless intermittently as an adult after experiencing marital difficulties. She took pictures of all the places she frequents in Waltham, like McDonald's, the library, a church, and the mental health center.

She said she was “honored” to be part of the photography project, and sees her photographs as a way to put a name and face to a problem that can seem intractable and intangible.

“I hope that people have a little more compassion and that they don't send them to the bottom of the heap,” said Pitary. “Just the stroke of luck, the lateness of a check can make you homeless.”

“We're a talented group of people who can take pictures like that, to see beyond the hopelessness,” she added.

Redman also talks about the hope in homelessness. She said when she was wrapped up in raising her kids and working, she never had time to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. For her, having abundant time offers blessings in addition to hardships.

She caught some of that with her camera, like the great blue herons that alight on the Charles River and the flowering weeds that grow near dumped trash.

“It just amazes me that there's so much here in the middle of Waltham,” she said. “In the middle of so much adversity there's a lot of beauty out there.”

The exhibit will be on display at Waltham's First Presbyterian Church at 34 Alder Street and is open to the public on Nov. 12 from 11 a.m. To 7 p.m.; Nov. 13 from 2 p.m. To 6 p.m.; Dec. 10 from 11 a.m. To 7 p.m.; and Dec. 11 from 2 p.m. To 6 p.m.

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Jeannie Redman explaining her photos.

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.

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